When the Milwaukee Brewers signed Jackie Bradley Jr. as a free agent, it was because they coveted his glove. Lorenzo Cain opted out of the 2020 season, dealt with injuries in 2019, and was entering his age-35 season. Uncertain of how often Cain would be able to take the field, the Brewers needed someone to plug in at center field with little to no drop-off defensively. There was no better candidate for such a role than Bradley, who has a sterling reputation as one of the best defensive outfielders in the sport.
The team has gotten exactly what they paid for when it comes to Bradley’s glove. He has racked up 13 Defensive Runs Saved and 5 Outs Above Average between the three outfield positions, including 10 DRS and 3 OAA in center field. By FanGraphs’ Defensive Runs Above Average—which weighs defensive contributions based on position—Bradley has been the ninth-most valuable non-catcher in the field (10 runs).
There is just one problem. While Bradley has saved plenty of runs with his glove, he has damaged his team’s chances of scoring runs with his bat. For much of the year, he was the worst hitter in baseball by wRC+. Thanks to reduced playing time in recent weeks, he no longer has enough plate appearances to qualify for that dubious distinction. However, his 39 wRC+ is by far the worst among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances this season. The next closest is Kevin Newman at 56.
The veteran outfielder’s hitting has been so brutal that despite being one of the best defenders in baseball, his -0.6 fWAR is second-worst on the roster behind only Keston Hiura. There are plenty of glove-first players in the game who are rarely threats to do much damage at the plate. However, those players typically hit just enough to be of positive value overall.
Bradley’s Jekyll-and-Hyde act (one of the best defensively, and one of the worst offensively) motivated me to conduct some research. How many players in baseball history have been this good on defense but so awful at hitting that they were this detrimental to their team overall?
After asking FanGraphs to spit out every individual player season in Major League Baseball history, I ended up with 94,047 entries. The next step was to see how many of these seasons were a “Bradley”—at least 10 Defensive Runs Above Average and -0.6 fWAR or worse.
The results were as expected: very few. In the entire history of the sport, there have been just 16 other seasons that met the conditions listed above. Two of them were by pitchers Kevin Brown and Gaylord Perry.
- Skeeter Newsome (1936)
- Mario Mendoza (1979)
- Germany Smith (1897)
- Eli Marrero (1999)
- Cesar Izturis (2002)
- Matt Walbeck (1994)
- Kevin Brown (1999)
- Jack Wilson (2001)
- Clint Barmes (2006)
- Rocky Bridges (1953)
- Mickey Doolin (1913)
- Gaylord Perry (1970)
- John Flaherty (1998)
- Danny Thompson (1970)
- Bob Boone (1984)
These 16 performances plus Bradley’s account for 0.02% of all individual seasons in MLB history. It’s no stretch to say that his 2021 season is in the most exclusive of company. If he manages to string plenty of hits together over the final weeks of the season, he could improve upon his WAR and remove himself from this list. However, Bradley has just one hit in 24 September at-bats, and it is difficult to envision him getting into a groove with inconsistent playing time.
For the most part, the 2021 Brewers have been unique for the right reasons. They are chasing the best regular-season record in franchise history. Within the past two weeks, fans were treated to the team’s first complete game shutout since 2014, an unlikely win via a walk-off grand slam, and their first no-hitter since Juan Nieves’ effort in 1987. Jackie Bradley Jr. will go down as another interesting quirk from this team, albeit not a fun or positive one.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball-Reference